To adapt Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was nervy of director Anthony Minghella to begin with; to sign sigh guy Matt Damon for the titular lead was downright perverse. Here’s one of the most opaque antiheroes in literature: an ambisexual social climber who has no personality until he acquires, by murder, someone else’s.
Minghella expands the primary players to include an American heiress (Cate Blanchett) and a gay playboy (Jack Davenport), which makes for a shapelier film even as they betray the book by giving Ripley a punishment the author purposefully withheld. Damon’s Ripley, too, lacks the Zelig-like impersonality that’s the source of Highsmith’s deeper chills. (Dennis Hopper, by contrast, nailed this aspect in 1977’s ”The American Friend,” adapted from the third Ripley novel.)
Ah, well. Minghella’s version offers gorgeous young swells like Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow swooning on the Italian coast; it has a soundtrack and cinematography as rich as crème de menthe. It’s been hand-tooled to win Oscars, which of course it was too dark to do. The irony is that if it had held true to Highsmith’s ruthless vision, no one would have wanted to see it at all.